Within eight minutes of each other Wednesday morning, the two House campaign committees blasted out dueling memos about what Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop’s 2-point victory in North Carolina’s 9th District means for the country’s political future.
The posturing was typical of reactions to special elections in the era of President Donald Trump. Publicly, at least, Republicans say everything is fine, while Democrats celebrate a narrow loss in a district that shouldn’t have been competitive.
Still, there are warning signs for both parties in Tuesday’s result.
Democrats once again saw that Trump, who held a rally in the district on the eve of the election, had the power to motivate rural white voters. National Democrats worked to engage with minorities on the ground, but they didn’t turn out for Democrat Dan McCready as much as he needed.
But the president’s power cuts both ways. He continues to turn off suburban voters, which is a bigger problem for Republicans given the kinds of districts that will be competitive in 2020.
“We had to go through this entire exercise to be told the environment still sucks for Republicans,” a GOP operative involved in House races said.
Had they lost this district, Republicans would have needed a net gain of 20 seats to win back the House majority next year. Now they need 19 seats — still an uphill battle considering there are 44 other GOP districts where Trump did worse in 2016 than he did in North Carolina’s 9th.
Special elections are special, and this one was uniquely special, given that it was a redo of a 2018 contest that was never certified because of election fraud tied to the GOP nominee Mark Harris’ campaign. But the lessons both parties are taking from this race will be instructive for how they navigate 2020, especially in a political battleground like North Carolina.
Suburban trouble spot
Republicans are spinning Bishop’s victory as sign of good things to come in 2020.
“Revolution not retirements,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthytweeted Tuesday night, trying to refute conventional wisdom that a close race in the 9th District would spur more members of the minority to reconsider running for reelection next year.
“Dan Bishop’s special election victory is yet another sign that congressional Republicans are poised to take back the majority,” reads the first line of the National Republican Congressional Committee memo. Never mind that outside GOP groups had to spend more than $6 million to defend a district that backed Trump by 12 points.
Even on Election Day, GOP leadership was trying to lower expectations for this race, calling the 9th a “swing district.” This district hasn’t elected a Democrat since the 1960s. After the election, Republicans have been pointing to the fact that McCready has been running for two years to explain why this race was competitive.
“McCready was an incredible candidate,” one national GOP strategist involved in House races said. “We’re not all going to be facing Dan McCreadys in special elections,” he added.
But not even all Democrats believed that about their own candidate, and not all Republicans are buying that either. “That’s all nonsense,” said another GOP operative involved in House races. “He was a good candidate but he wasn’t Conor Lamb good,” he added, referring to the Democrat who defeated a flawed GOP nominee in a 2018 special election in Pennsylvania.
Republicans have also interpreted Tuesday’s results as validation of their messaging against “socialist” Democrats and the “squad,” a group of four Democratic female freshmen who have supplanted Nancy Pelosi as the GOP’s new boogeywomen. But the outside groups that paid for the brunt of the spending on the Republican side in this race didn’t talk much about socialism. Instead, their ads focused on McCready’s business background.
“The socialism message tested fine,” the national Republican strategist said. “But we used the best message.” Trying to hold down McCready’s margins in the Charlotte media market, the Congressional Leadership Fund attacked McCready for being “greedy” and accused him of using his business to enrich himself at taxpayers’ expense.
Other outside groups like the NRCC and Club for Growth used a similar message. In a memo to donors on Wednesday, CLF credited that message consistency for having helped move Bishop from being down 8 points when he started the race to his 2-point victory. Only Bishop’s ads consistently talked about the squad and socialism in an appeal to conservative voters in the rural, eastern part of the district.
Bishop’s win may have been a relief to some Republicans. It reassured them about Trump’s ability to motivate rural white voters, especially in a handful of conservative districts they’d like to win back next fall, such as Oklahoma’s 5th District or South Carolina’s 1st. But it hasn’t eased GOP fears about slippage in the suburbs, especially in places like Mecklenburg County in the Charlotte area.
“We have a huge problem with suburbia. The No. 1 problem is that people with a college degree don’t want to vote for us,” the GOP operative said.
What happened in the east
The 9th District stretches from the Charlotte suburbs in the west, south along the South Carolina border, toward Fayetteville in the east. McCready’s strategy was to win big in suburban Mecklenburg County, where Trump is unpopular, and boost minority turnout in the east.
McCready did slightly increase his margin in Mecklenburg County, but not by enough to compensate for doing worse in the east than he did in 2018. McCready carried four of the six counties he carried last fall against Harris. In Tuesday’s redo, Bishop, who won a 10-way primary in May, defeated McCready by a little less than 4,000 votes, 51 percent to 49 percent.
A Marine veteran and solar energy entrepreneur, McCready tried to run as a moderate Democrat who opposed impeaching Trump, “Medicare for All” and an assault weapons ban. As his fellow Democrats did in 2018, he stuck to a message about health care, which his campaign saw as a unifying theme that would appeal to both suburban independents and moderate Republicans in the west and Democratic base voters in the east.
Bishop, a Charlotte-area lawyer, was a very different candidate from Harris, an anti-establishment conservative who had unseated the Republican incumbent Robert Pittenger in a 2018 primary. But Bishop, too, went all in on his support for Trump in this campaign. Recognizing that Mecklenburg County was trending Democratic, his team made a play for the eastern part of the district, while holding on to Harris’ margin in conservative Union County.
McCready was trailing in Richmond and Cumberland counties Tuesday night, two counties he won last fall. Trump’s rally Monday night in Fayetteville is credited with boosting conservative turnout in Cumberland.
Another trouble spot for McCready was in Robeson County, particularly among the Lumbee tribe, which backed Trump in 2016 but had supported McCready in 2018. Support for McCready in Robeson County precincts where registered Native Americans made up more than 50 percent of voters fell by 11 points, according to calculations by Catawba College professor Michael Bitzer. McCready won those precincts with 58 percent of the vote in 2018; this year, he got only 47 percent.
“This is the surprise of this campaign,” Bitzer said. “It caught everybody off guard.”